Sadly, Shadowrun has rarely entered the realm video games, with the last great entries occurring over two decades ago and its 2007 entry producing an extremely mediocre first-person shooter. Jordan Weisman, creator of Shadowrun, wanted to change the relationship between his tabletop game and the video game industry. After acquiring the Shadowrun license from Catalyst Game Labs, Weisman created a Kickstarter in March of 2012 asking for $400,000 to create a faithful and worthy video game adaptation of Shadowrun, named Shadowrun Returns. Weisman quickly exceeded his goal and ended his Kickstarter campaign with close to $1.9 million. A year later and here we are, able to play Shadowrun Returns and judge the game on its faithfulness to the original work.
Because both Shadowrun and Shadowrun Returns are RPGs, I feel it necessary to talk about stats. In comparison to its tabletop legacy, Shadowrun Returns has simplified statistics. Several independent stats from the tabletop game are mashed together in the video game and operate as one stat. That is not to say that Shadowrun Returns is overall simplistic or suffers because of that change. There are still dozens of character builds which can be created, it’s just that the simplification eliminates some of the tedious stat-management that would have occurred if this was a one-to-one translation of the tabletop RPG. However, for those wanting a one-to-one translation this is, unfortunately, not the video game to satisfy your hunger.
The adaptation of the combat of Shadowrun will turn off purists and may turn off the average video game fan as well. The basics; Shadowrun Returns is a turn-based, isometric RPG where random number generators determine whether or not an attack hits rather than the system that is now standard in the games industry – how much damage an attack does. The combat, while maintaining the core elements of Shadowrun, is unfortunately limited to smaller encounters that are inflexible in how players can approach them, at least in the official campaign. Part of the fun of the Shadowrun tabletop RPG is that because of its flexibility, there could be thousands of possible approaches and solutions to any problem based on a player’s imagination and creativity. Because of the finite nature of video games, Shadowrun Returns only offers a handful of approaches to most situations in the game, and that will displease purists. For those willing to endure the limited choices of the game, there are several niggling issues as well. The ability to save in combat, the ability to trade items between characters, and the ability to gain foresight on a location before moving to it are all absent amenities which game players of this genre have all grown accustomed to.
The stat structure is questionable and the gameplay has issues. One aspect of Shadowrun Returns that I can confidently pinpoint as good or bad is the story, and thankfully it is the former. The main campaign of the game, Dead Man’s Switch, starts with an intriguing premise that continues to escalate in a nice steady curve to a satisfying conclusion. The writing is vivid compared to other RPGs and provides the right amount of detail in a nuanced way to support the slightly-wacky but serious tone of the cyberpunk setting while also hiding the right amount of information to provide a nice sense of mystery and discovery. This level of writing has its effect on the gameplay too, as players become invested in the decisions they’re making and dialogue boxes transcend meaningless diversions to outlets of actual role-playing. That is an achievement rarely seen in even the most popular RPGs and Shadowrun Returns firmly grabs that award with both hands tightly.
And at the end of the day, whatever issues I or the community have with Shadowrun Returns may be mute. Included with the game is a campaign editor, allowing for custom story modules to be created and distributed through the Steam Workshop. Looking through guides, it appears that the editor has extra functionality that was not displayed within the Dead Man’s Switch campaign. While I would never recommend buying a game solely because of the promise of community fixes/modifications, Shadowrun Returns should be on radar of those who have a good knack for guessing which game communities will continue or slowly stop.
Overall, Shadowrun Returns is a questionable game with very good writing. In comparison to its genre brethren, the game is lacking a few key features and is not entirely faithful to the tabletop game, and that’s going to upset some purists. The main campaign of the game has excellent writing, elevating the game from being another science-fiction RPG to being a game with the distinctive flavour of Shadowrun. If you are willing to forgive the game with its combat mechanics and are looking for a surprisingly unique setting, I cannot help but recommend Shaodwrun Returns.
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